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Monday, November 25, 2019

How to think about politics #2 - who gets to vote?

If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it was the title of a book by Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London. He was wrong. Voting does change things. That’s the reason one of the first thing dictators do is abolish voting. 

What is voting for, then? 

Voting is useful when we need to make a choice, but we don’t all agree. It is a simple, mathematical way to find out what people think about something: how many people support one course of action, how many support another. Everyone gets an equal say, so the result is fair.

Or is it? There are some issues … (which is handy for debaters). The first one we’re going to look at is the franchise, which means who gets to vote.

So who gets to vote in the UK General Election to be held on December 12th?

Obvious, you might think. Everyone who has a stake in the result. That’s fair, isn’t it? And the result will affect everyone who lives in the UK, so surely everyone who lives in the UK will be allowed to vote.

No they won’t.

All British and Commonwealth citizens over the age of 18 resident in the UK are entitled to vote in General Elections. (The Commonwealth is a collection of countries which used to be part of the British Empire.) So people who are not British citizens, but come from countries that used to be in the British Empire, can vote, but people who are from other countries, even if they live in the UK, work in the UK, have families in the UK, pay taxes in the UK, obviously have a stake in the future of the UK, can’t vote. Why? Is the Commonwealth vote a way of saying ‘sorry’ to all those countries for having invaded them once? Given that Brexit is one of the big issues in the election, shouldn’t EU citizens living in the UK have a vote in the General Election?

Prisoners are not allowed to vote. Why not? They may have done something wrong in the past to be put in prison, but don’t they have a stake in the future too? In some states in the US, if you commit one crime, you are never allowed to vote again. Is that fair? Is voting a privilege that can be taken away, or a right?

And why do you have to be 18 or over? Given that the next government could be in power for five years before the next election, what they do will have a big impact on people who will be adults throughout almost all that time. Even those who won’t be adults will be affected by, for example, the government’s policy on schools - does your school have enough funding from the government? - or transport - are there enough buses to get you to school? - or the economy - will your parents have a job that pays them enough to look after you?

 Does everyone miraculously acquire wisdom at midnight on their eighteenth birthday? In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, 16 year olds were allowed to vote. But why start at 16? The distinguished Cambridge politics professor David Runciman argues six year olds should be allowed to vote, as soon as they can read. Surely, tbough, they’re too immature, too ill informed, too open to influence, have too little stake in the outcome? Professor Runciman makes the point that all those arguments were once made against giving women the vote. 

At the other extreme, there were people who said after the EU referendum that people made a bad decision because they didn’t know enough about the facts. It is certainly true that voters with a high level of education tended to vote Remain, and that those with a low level of education tended to vote Leave. Does that mean that voting Remain was smarter? Does going to university give you better judgement? Should people get more votes depending on how many exams they have passed? Then again, you’re not allowed to drive until you’ve passed a driving test, to show you know how to drive a car responsibly; shouldn’t you have to pass some sort of test to show you know how to vote responsibly?

The history of the franchise in the UK has been one of progressive widening. First no one was allowed to vote, because all power was invested in the king or queen. Then men who had a certain amount of property were allowed to vote, because they had more stake in the nation than people who didn’t have property, and more sense than women. Then men who didn’t have property were allowed to vote, to give them a taste of the power they lacked by not having property. Then women were allowed to vote, but not till they were 30, because they needed longer to think about things. Then all people over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. Then the voting age was reduced to 18, because people were picking things up a bit faster by now. Each of these widenings has involved more people in democracy, and each has been resisted. It is not a simple matter deciding who gets to vote. But it is certainly worth thinking about.

Motions connected with this topic:

  • This house would reduce the voting age to 16 / 11 / 6.

  • This house would give prisoners the vote.

  • This house would give EU citizens the vote in General Elections.

  • This house would require everyone to pass a citizenship test before being allowed to vote.

  • This house would make voting compulsory.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Bad Arguments #5 - argument by authority

‘Hannah, tidy up your bedroom.’
‘Because it’s so untidy you can’t find anything in it.’
‘But Dad, I’m the only one who has to find things in it, and I know where everything is.’
‘It’s unhygienic, it’s a health hazard.’
‘I haven’t had a day off school sick in two years.’
‘Your sister’s is much tidier.’
‘I’m not my sister.’
‘I hate looking at it.’
‘Don’t go in there then.’
‘Just tidy up your bedroom.’
‘Because I’m your Dad and I say so!’

Have you ever had an argument like that? Yes, I thought so. As the parent of a teenager, I’ve had it myself a few times.

It’s a useful exercise sometimes to analyse the arguments you have in daily life in terms of logical fallacies (though probably not a good idea to do this while you’re actually having them, if you don’t want to annoy the other person even more than you already have). 

Let’s look at this argument. At first, it progresses through argument and rebuttal, Dad putting arguments, Hannah rebutting them. If I was Dad’s debate coach, I would suggest that, while his arguments are both strong and varied, he gives up rather too easily, moving on to a new argument every time he meets rebuttal rather than responding to the rebuttal with a reinforcement of the argument. But it’s hard to remember these things when you’ve had a bad day at work, you’re tired, and the dishwasher has broken down again.

Dad’s last argument, though, is much weaker, because he essentially gives no reasons for Hannah tidying up her bedroom other than his own position of authority in the family. While it is sometimes necessary for everybody’s well-being in a family, a school or wider society for a parent, teacher or police officer to exert their authority without having to explain themselves, this kind of argument - the argument by authority - will not win you any points in a debate. The argument by authority is similar to the argument by democratic majority, in that it reaches for something or someone outside the terms of the argument to close down the debate.

How might it be used in a debate, and how could you rebut it?

In a debate on the motion ‘This house would ban private schools’, an opposition speaker says:

’It would be wrong to ban private schools because the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says that parents have the right to decide how their children should be educated.’

How should you rebut this example of argument by authority

How about this?

‘Why should we listen to what the UN says? They’re under the control of corrupt leaders in the US and Russia.’

Bad rebuttal. Why? You’re guilty of the ad hominem, playing the player not the ball. Don’t attack the authority; attack what it says. You can do this even while respecting the authority. So, try this instead:

‘The framers of that declaration had the most admirable intentions, and it has been an inspiration for many vital campaigns. However, they did not foresee the way in which the right for parents to choose their children’s education can be abused in countries where private education gives children whose parents who can afford it an unfair advantage. Having the right to educate your son at Eton is a meaningless right for the vast majority of British people, when it costs £40,000 a year and the median household income is £28,000.’

To sum up:
  • Simply citing an authority does not prove anything.
If your opponent cites an authority at you, no matter how admirable the authority:

  • Respect whatever expertise the authority has.
  • Point out the flaws in what the authority says.

Monday, November 11, 2019

How to think about politics #1 - what is democracy?

As I hope you’ve noticed, we’re going to have a General Election in the UK two weeks before Christmas. This is a good time to start thinking about politics. All debaters should take an active interest in politics - it’s  a vital part of being a debater.

How to think about politics will be an occasional thread on this blog, looking at wider political issues, and how you might use your understanding of them to inform your debating. Each post will be followed by a list of possible debate motions connected with the topic of the post. 

Our first post in the series is entitled: What is democracy? This is a good question to ask on the eve of a General Election. 

Democracy is like God used to be five hundred years ago. Everyone believes in it (or at least says they do). Schools in the UK are obliged by law to promote it as a ‘British Value’. However, nobody can quite agree what it really is. There are in fact many kinds of democracy.

We’re going to be looking at four main kinds of democracy:

  • Direct democracy
  • Plebiscitary democracy
  • Representative democracy
  • Deliberative democracy

and considering the strengths and weaknesses of each.

To help us to consider them, we’re going to look at an example of a real life problem and consider how it might be solved by different types of democracy.

Take a busy road in a residential area. There’s constant traffic along it, as it’s on the route into town. But there are also houses on either side. Many of these houses are lived in by young children. Their parents are worried about them crossing this busy road on their way to school. So they ask the local council to put in a crossing, with traffic lights. A crossing would make their lives better.

However, there are many people in the area who don’t live in that road, but who need to drive along it to get to work or to shops. If there is a crossing, triggering a red light on a regular basis, their journeys will be interrupted and will be much slower. At rush hour times, existing traffic jams will get even worse. A crossing would make their lives worse.

How would democracy resolve our road crossing problem? Some say that democracy is about enacting the will of the people. The trouble is, the people almost never all think the same thing, as in this case. Some people want a road crossing. Other people don’t. You can’t both have a road crossing and not have it at the same time. So you can’t enact the ‘will of the people’, because there is no one will of the people. 

A really important thing to understand is that democracy is not actually about enacting the will of the people. It is about finding a way to run society which enables people with different views to carry on getting on with each other, even when decisions are taken that many of them disagree with.

How would our different types of democracy help us with this task?

1. Direct democracy

Direct democracy is democracy in its purest form. Everyone affected by a particular issue gets together in one place and argues it out until a conclusion is reached, with everyone having an equal voice. 

It is the oldest type of democracy in the world. It was practised in Ancient Greece. All citizens of Athens would gather on a hill called the Pnyx to argue out the issues of the day. Often there were thousands of people there, and meetings got very raucous, with passionate speeches on all sides. Being skilled in the art of rhetoric (i.e. debating) was a big advantage, and there were dozens of teachers of rhetoric, called ‘sophists’, who made a lot of money out of teaching people these arts. Everyone could have their say, and at the end of the meeting a vote would be taken by a show of hands.

‘Democracy’ is originally a Greek word, meaning ‘rule by the people’. The Greeks are often held up as heroes of democracy, for having invented it. In fact, Ancient Greek democracy would not be recognised as such today, because women were excluded from it, as were the large number of people kept as slaves, whose labour allowed the ‘free born’ citizens of Athens to have so much leisure to chew the fat with their mates. None the less, it does provide an inspiring example of raw democracy in action.

How would it work with our road crossing?

A hall large enough to hold all the residents of the area would be hired. Everyone would be invited to a meeting. Everyone could have their say about the crossing (there would have to be a chair to keep order). At the end of the evening, either an open vote would be taken about whether or not to have a crossing, or, in really advanced direct democracy, it would be clear what the general feeling of the meeting was.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of democracy?

  • Everyone is involved.
  • Everyone’s voice can be heard.
  • It operates at a human level, because there is face to face interaction.

  • The practical one. It might be possible to get all the residents of a few streets into one large room; it is not possible to get all the citizens of the United Kingdom into one room.
  • The face to face interaction and open voting might actually prevent honest discussion, as people may be reluctant to speak candidly to people they have to see every day. 
  • People may be swayed in their decisions by existing relationships; do you want to publicly disagree with your son’s best friend’s mother?
  • People may be swayed in their decisions by powerful rhetoric, as the sophists of Ancient Greece discovered to their profit.

Direct democracy works best in small groups or communities, such as families or businesses, where there are already strong relationships, shared interests and a high level of trust. It’s much harder to get it to work in larger groups or ones where there are already problematic relationships.

2. Plebiscitary democracy

Plebiscitary democracy means rule by plebiscite. The word ‘plebiscite’ originally meant a vote in the plebeians’ assembly in Ancient Rome. The plebeians were the lowest class of people in Ancient Rome (hence  calling someone you don’t much respect a ‘pleb’). Like democracy, the word suggests listening to the people directly. In modern times, a plebiscite means a one off vote on a particular issue, open to all adult citizens of a country; it is more commonly known now as a referendum.

So, to resolve our road crossing controversy, ballot papers would be sent to all the houses in the area with a  simple question: ‘Do you support building a new road crossing?’ and the option to vote Yes or No. The votes are collected and counted. If there are more Yes than No votes, the crossing is built; if there are more No than Yes votes, it isn’t.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of democracy?

  • It is simple and easy to understand.
  • Everyone’s vote counts equally.
  • Because it is a secret ballot, people can vote how they really want to without fear of others’ reactions.
  • It provides a final resolution of the question.

  • It reduces complex questions to a simple binary choice.
  • Splitting issues into two can cause polarisation, the forcing of people into two opposing camps, with damaging consequences for social cohesion.
  • Particularly in a close result, large numbers of people on the losing side may feel ignored and resentful, with no opportunity of redress.
  • It doesn’t necessarily provide a final resolution of the question, as circumstances change, and people change their minds.

In most countries, referendums are used only for big constitutional questions such as changing the voting system, or granting independence to a region. They have been used extensively for years in Switzerland, at all levels of government from the highest to the lowest, to decide questions from the opening hours of the local supermarket to whether women should have the vote. There, they have helped to build a more cohesive and trusting society, as politicians take great care to ensure that their policies command popular support before they enact them for fear of having their laws overturned in a referendum, and citizens feel truly listened to. The UK’s experience with the EU referendum has been, I think it is fair to say, a less happy one. It asked a simple binary question about an issue which is enormously complicated and has literally thousands of different parts, thus triggering confusion and conflict once the Leave verdict had to be enacted; there was no clear plan for how to leave, and everyone had a different idea about how to do it. It also managed to divide a country (and not a few families) in which up until then most people had cared very little one way or another about the EU into two mutually uncomprehending and antagonistic tribes defined by their response to the referendum in ways which mostly had nothing to do with the EU (‘That’s a rather Brexity sandwich.’ ‘Cycling is such a Remainy thing to do.’).

Referendums work best with questions which can and should be reduced to a binary choice, and when the precise course of action following the result is made clear before the vote.

3. Representative democracy

Representative democracy means delegating the job of making decisions. Just as you might take your car to the garage if you don’t know how to fix it yourself, so you take your country to Parliament to get it fixed. The people get to choose who makes the decisions, and they then have to trust the people they’ve chosen. It is the most common form of democracy. In the UK, people elect their local Member of Parliament (MP), in constituencies of approximately 70,000 people each. There are 650 MPs in Parliament. The leader of the largest party in Parliament becomes the Prime Minister, and leads the government. She or he appoints ministers to run specific parts of the government, such as the health service, education, defence etc. Once they are elected, these representative leaders make decisions on behalf of the people, but without the need to consult them. They are however accountable to the people at election time, when the people have the right to remove them. You can learn more about Parliament works in our earlier post on the British constitution

In our road crossing example, the local people would vote to choose a small committee of residents who would consider the question of the road crossing and make a decision on their behalf. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this type of democracy?


  • The representatives have time and energy to concentrate on the issues. 
  • Decisions are likely to be taken in a more considered and thoughtful way.
  • People are freed from having to concern themselves with the decisions and can get on with their lives, while still knowing that the people who make the decisions are accountable to them.


  • Representatives can seem remote and out of touch.
  • People feel less ownership of the decision process.
  • Representatives often split on party lines, and waste time and energy in fighting each other.
  • If circumstances and opinions change over time, there is little opportunity for the representatives to respond.

Representative democracy is in many ways the most efficient model of democracy, and perhaps that is why it is the most common. However, in recent years it has had something of an image problem, with elected leaders perceived as out of touch with the people. Specifically in the UK, it has clashed with plebiscitary democracy. The view on the EU expressed in the 2016 referendum (narrowly in favour of leaving) clashed with the view of our elected representatives (overwhelmingly in favour of remaining). This has led to a crisis in UK democracy which has still not been resolved.

4. Deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy really just means thinking about things together before you make a decision. 

A group of people is selected, not by vote, but in a way that is as representative of the people as possible, by ensuring a balance of age, gender, area, socio-economic background etc. They are then gathered together in the same room, and given as much evidence as possible on the question to be decided. They listen to this evidence and talk it over and come to a conclusion.

So for the road crossing, a small committee of residents would be selected, not elected. For example, there might be one parent, one business person, one driver, one non driver, one elder person. They would research evidence on things like traffic flow, pollution, the times of day most people need to cross the road etc. They would then come up with a recommended course of action. This might end up being some form of compromise, e.g. only running the crossing at times when children are going to or coming home from school.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of this form of democracy?


  • It makes for decisions which are more likely to be based on evidence rather than prejudice.
  • If the deliberative panel is well chosen, these decisions will be more representative of the people.
  • It often neutralises divisive conflicts, providing more opportunity for compromise.


  • The panel can seem remote from the people.
  • It is very time consuming.
  • Compromise can end up satisfying no one.

The poster child for deliberative democracy was the 2018 referendum in Ireland to repeal the law against abortion. Abortion was a very highly charged and emotional issue in Ireland. The Catholic Church, which opposes abortion under all circumstances, has been deeply embedded in Irish culture for hundreds of years, but has recently lost much of its power following a series of abuse scandals. The referendum could easily have split the country down the middle. However, it was preceded by a Citizens’ Assembly, which selected a range of people from across Irish society to consider the evidence about abortion in real depth. Many people changed their minds in the process. The vote went two to one in favour of repealing the law against abortion, but, more importantly, unlike the Brexit vote in the UK, the referendum left very little legacy of bitterness; people on both sides felt they had been listened to. While the Catholic Church in Ireland continues to teach that abortion is wrong, it has accepted the change in the law, and is not seeking to overturn it.

Deliberative democracy is probably the highest form of democracy. However, it does require a considerable investment of time and goodwill. As Oscar Wilde said of socialism, it sounds like a good idea, but it does take up rather a lot of evenings.

Now you know about different kinds of democracy, you will be better able to debate the following motions:

  • This house would make voting in General Elections compulsory.
  • This house would set up a Citizens’ Assembly to resolve Brexit / respond to the climate emergency / [insert another issue].
  • This house would ban referendums.
  • This house would delegate democratic decisions to the lowest level.
  • This house would make it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female.
  • This house would have annual elections to Parliament.
  • This house believes democracy has failed.

Monday, November 4, 2019

How to debate #11 - performing in your role

Debating is a bit like acting, in that debaters are always in role. 

Sometimes this means pretending to believe in something you don't really believe in. However, even if you are arguing for something you passionately believe in, you are still in role. 

This is because different speakers have different roles to play in the debate. You need to know what responsibilities your role has and make sure you carry out those responsibilities. How well each debater has performed in their role is one of the key criteria judges use when deciding who has won a debate.

Below is a summary of roles: what each speaker should be doing at each stage of the debate. Some roles are common to the two main debating formats, British Parliamentary (BP) and Mace, and some apply only to one format.

First proposition (Mace)
Prime Minister (BP)

The first thing you have to do as first proposition is to define the motion. See our earlier post on how to define the motion. This should take about 10% of your speech.

Once that’s done, you have to set out not just your own argument, but your whole side’s arguments. In BP, this will be you and the Deputy Prime Minister; in Mace, you and your second speaker.

Make it brief, but clear. ‘I will be arguing that A / B / C. My partner / the Deputy Prime Minister will be arguing that C / D / E.’ (Remember, three points only per speech.) This signposting helps the audience (crucially, the judges) to follow your case easily. Spend about 20% of your speech on this.

Then, get going with your speech, covering your three points, devoting the other 70% of your time to it. One advantage of speaking first is that you do not have to do any rebuttal. Make the most of this advantage by making your arguments as thorough as possible. 

First opposition (Mace)
Leader of the Opposition (BP)

Your first task is rebuttal of the first proposition speech. You should spend 20% of your time on this. See our earlier post on how to do rebuttal. Then, set out your case and that of your partner / the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the same way as above for the first proposition; another 20%. Finally, 60% on your own arguments. 

Remember, you must accept the definition offered by the first proposition, so you may need to think fast and adapt your arguments if it is different from what you expected / prepared for.

Second proposition / opposition (Mace)
Deputy Prime Minister / Deputy Leader of the Opposition (BP)

Rebut the previous speaker's arguments for 20% of your speech; then give 80% of the speech to setting out your own arguments. No more than three arguments.

Make sure your arguments:

  • Are the same as the ones signposted in the opening speech on your side.
  • Do not contradict the opening speech on your side.
  • Do not overlap with the opening speech on your side.

Government Member / Opposition Member (BP)

This is in some ways one of the toughest positions. It occurs only in BP, and is one of the aspects of BP that makes it a particularly challenging format.

Because you are in a team of two with the Government Whip / Opposition Whip, you are competing not just against the other side but also against the first two speakers on your side. You must not, however, contradict them (this is known as ‘kniving’); however, neither should you waste any time supporting their arguments. Instead, support their definition of the motion, but do it better than they have.

You do this by extension. That is, you must find new arguments and new examples supporting the motion as it has been defined by first proposition. This calls for some quick thinking, as you don’t know what the first two speakers on your side are going to say until they say it.

You also need to do rebuttal of the previous speech. You should spend approximately 20% of your speech on rebuttal, the other 80% on your extension.

Government Whip / Opposition Whip (BP)

The key thing to remember in this role is that you must not introduce any new material. The reason for this rule is that it is unfair to the other side, as they have no opportunity to rebut it.  

You do not need to rebut the previous speaker in the way that all the other speakers except for the first one have. Instead, your job is to sum up the debate, summarising the whole of your case and rebutting the whole of the opposition's. 

Summarise the cases made by both your side and the opposition, showing where you clash (see our earlier post on the point of clash), and showing why your side has won that clash

‘The proposition have argued that … however, we say that … / we have argued that … the opposition claim that … however, this is not the case because ….’ Spend slightly longer on your side of the case and, of course, make it sound better. You do have to refer to the first and second speakers on your side, and make their arguments sound good, even though you are competing against them. Don’t worry about this; doing it well will earn you points from the judges. 

What makes a good summary? Think of yourself as a teacher, explaining your case, with the judges as your students. Most teachers do what they call ‘plenary’ at the end of a lesson or a unit of work, in which they sum up what has been covered in a way that makes it as clear and memorable as possible, so that their students understand it and remember it. If the judges understand and remember your case, they are more likely to be persuaded by it, and to award you the debate. Think of how your best teacher does plenary, and try to emulate her or him.

To be successful in this role, you have to be an excellent listener and a quick thinker. You must be able to take in everything that is said in the debate and organise it in a clear, logical way under pressure of time. Efficient note taking skills are useful here (as they are in your school studies!). You also have to be good at identifying the points of clash and focusing rigorously on them in your summary.

Summary speaker (Mace)
Third speaker (Extended Mace)

Everything said above about Government / Opposition Whip applies, with the addition that you must respond to / rebut speeches from the floor.

One other responsibility of all speakers, and a key aspect you will be marked on, is making points of information. You should aim (subject to not being guilty of badgering) to make one or two points of information to every speaker. Even if they are not accepted, the judges will see that you are trying, and will reward you accordingly. Equally, if you do not make any, they will penalise you for this.

Whatever your role, keep rigorously focused on the main point of the debate; don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked into marginal issues. If the debate is about making it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female, and you find you are spending 50% of your time discussing the cost of removing urinals from toilets in the Houses of Parliament, you are not really focused on the main point, which is about whether using quotas is the best way to tackle discrimination.

Working as a team, and fulfilling the role you have been given, are both key parts of any debating mark scheme. This is right, because both are essential parts of making the most persuasive case possible.